The Art Genre Glossary: A New Collector’s Companion

Lot 100, "A View of a Town" by Bartholomeus Johannes van Hove, 1840, Doyle New York (January 27, 2016). Genre: Maritime Art

If you’re a budding collector striving to build a meaningful art collection, you might need to immerse yourself in an art history overview or refresher. To start, here’s a chronological list of 23 influential art genres and periods to know, remember, and keep watch for as they come to market on Invaluable.

Inuit Art

The Inuit, aboriginal people of the Arctic previously known as Eskimos, produce art inspired by the arctic landscape and the Inuit way of life. Their rich tradition of artistic production originated in the Pre-Dorset and Dorset cultures (4000-600BCE). This early population produced a significant amount of figurative art in the mediums of ivory, bone, antler, and occasionally stone. Subjects included birds, bears, walruses, seals, human figures, and small masks, each of which had a magical or religious significance. They were either worn as amulets to ward off evil spirits, or used in Shamanic rituals.

As the Inuit settled into communities in the late 1940s, their carvings became larger and their craft became more widely recognized as an art form. Since the 1950s, the Inuit graphic style has developed; some Inuit artists have adopted a polished style rooted in naturalism while others have developed a style that is highly abstract. Both styles depict traditional beliefs.

Popular Artists: Kenojuak Ashevak, Pitseolak Ashoona, Osuitok Ipeelee, Andy Miki, Jessie Oonark

High Renaissance

Jumping forward to the High Renaissance (1500-1525), artists had absorbed a full century of humanism and were well versed in classical antiquity and the study of geometry and perspective. With remarkable proficiency, artists refined the technical achievements of those before them and produced works of art that are considered among the greatest masterpieces in art history.

Works of art created during the High Renaissance are often characterized by balanced compositions and a harmonious use of color in the framework of classical antiquity. The period produced such creative geniuses as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian.

Popular Artists: Donato Bramante, Vittore Carpaccio, Andrea del Sarto, Correggio, Giorgione

Maritime Art

Maritime art refers to figurative art that portrays or draws its main inspiration from the sea. It primarily depicts naval vessels, the sea, or imagery otherwise pertaining to oceanic navigation, including: yachts, schooners, warships, sailboats, tugboats, naval battle and history, whalers, and lighthouses.

There is no one medium or style characteristically applied to maritime art. Artists worked in a variety of media including watercolor, oils, acrylic, and pastel. Likewise, style was unique to the artist and ranged from Luminism, as in the works of Fitz Hugh Lane and Robert Salmon, to the more dramatic, tumultuous pieces as those by James Buttersworth or Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Maritime art was particularly popular in seaports and coastal towns and in cities in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and America between the 17th and 19th centuries, but continues to be a popular genre worldwide.

Popular Artists: Fitz Hugh Lane, Robert Salmon, James Butterworth, Montague Dawson, Winslow Homer

17th-Century Colonial American Portrait Painters

First-generation painters who journeyed to America from abroad in the 17th century are today still largely unknown by name. Immigrants imported a number of paintings, but a surprising amount was actually made in the colonies, mostly in Boston and New York. Artists likely engaged in diverse occupations while making the first life-size portraits of colonists in New England and New York.

The earliest dated work (1664) is an unsigned portrait made in Boston of Elizabeth Eggington. Another unsigned painting from 1664, in somewhat better condition, depicts a bearded physician holding a skull and an instrument known as a trephine (for cutting a hole in the skull of a patient).

By the last decade of the 17th century, a painter named Captain Thomas Smith came to Boston. Smith’s signed self-portrait currently hangs in the Worcester Museum of Art. His workmanship is also attributed to portraits of Mrs. Patteshall and child and of Major Thomas Savage, both paintings in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. By 1700, a new crop of painters seem sprang up in the colonies, not having formally trained abroad.

Popular Artists: John Singleton Copley, Charles Wilsone Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbell, Benjamin West


Rococo was an 18th-century style of French painting and decorative arts. Derived from the French world “rocaille,” Rococo refers to the shell-covered rockwork that was used to decorate artificial grottoes. The style was characterized by flowering vegetal forms and light coloring. Artists avoided the historical and religious subject matter of the past, and concentrated on creating light-hearted and pleasurable compositions, leaving the viewer to focus on the beauty.

Jean-Honore Fragonard’s “The Swing,” 1767, exemplified this aesthetic with an erotic, lush garden scene. Also influential to Rococo, Antoine Watteau romanticized the lives of young aristocrats in his paintings by incorporating shimmering pastels and dramatic lighting. Considered a painter of “fête galante,” his pieces emulated the pleasure seeking spirit of the times.

Rococo celebrated youth and beauty, but also glorified pious life in Pastoral scenes. This peasant life misconception highlighted a disconnect between the classes of 18th-century France, leading to the French Revolution in 1789. Rococo was swiftly replaced by Neoclassicism, the signature visual style of the Emperor Napoleon in France.

Popular Artists: Francois Boucher, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, Jean-Honore Fagonard, Nicolas Lancret, Antoine Watteau

19-Century American Still Life Painting

Beginning in the 19th century, still life painting became a popular medium of artistic expression in the United States. While the Peale family of Philadelphia produced extraordinary still life paintings during the 18th century, the next generation of artists added their own mark to this important tradition, which dates back to Renaissance Europe.

Many American artists painted humble subjects like fruit and flowers because they were the most readily available props. Over time, compositions became increasingly sophisticated, reflecting the rapid changes of a young nation. In them are glimpses of unique cultural shifts, extraordinary economic progress, and shifting social values.

Popular Artists: Raphaelle Peale, Severin Roesin, Martin Johnson Heade, Andrew John Henry, Paul LaCroix

19th-Century American Sculpture

Beginning in the late 1820s, American sculptors traveled to Florence and Rome to look for inspiration. Making use of the abundance of natural resources, and referencing noble collections including works of the Renaissance and classical and contemporary pieces, they created marble sculptures in Neoclassical style. Students looked in particular to the Neoclassical works of Antonio Canova and the tradition of Romantic Classicism, or the infusion of naturalism into the classical vein.

During this Italian Period, American women also became active sculptors and established or trained in studios and ex-patriate colonies in Rome and Florence. American sculptors then began to travel to Paris for study in the second half of the 19th century. The ideal forms of Neoclassicism were increasingly replaced by the more naturalistic and expressive realism of the Paris-based Beaux Arts aesthetic.

Popular Artists: Hiram Powers, Thomas Crawford, Edmonia Lewis, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frederick Remington


Pre-Raphaelite refers to the style originated by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), founded by a group of English artists, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They were active between 1848 and 1853.

Pre-Raphaelite paintings are theatrically romantic, characterized by intense color, tight handling, intricate realism, and great attention to detail. During the later half of the 19th century, however, the style became broader and more muted in color through the work of the Brotherhood’s followers.

The Pre-Raphaelite painters looked primarily to nature and banished the heavy, dark colors of the academic painting of the time, replacing them with bright, naturalistic detail painted on a white ground to add brilliancy. The Pre-Raphaelite group especially admired the simplicity and sincerity of Quattrocento art and rejected contemporary, sterile and formulaic academicism, which they thought to have descended from the Bolognese followers of Raphael.

By 1853, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood itself had virtually dissolved, but the Pre-Raphaelite style remained popular for decades, influencing the Arts and Crafts Movement, Symbolist painters, and the Victorian Classicists.

Popular Artists: John Brett, Richard Burchett, Henry Holiday, Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, Elizabeth Siddal

Glasgow Boys

The Glasgow Boys were a group of Scottish artists, active principally in Glasgow through the 1880s and 1890s.

The Glasgow Boys introduced forms of Impressionism and Post-Impressionist painting to Scotland, developing their own individual interpretations of it. In addition to painting in Glasgow and its environs, the Glasgow Boys sought to capture the many facets of the character of Scotland and painted in other parts of the country. They often depicted scenes of rural and prosaic life, which were captured out of doors.

The production of naturalistic paintings was new to this time period, and thus their techniques were considered innovative. Similarly, the pieces often created a sense of movement, an accurate or naturalistic depiction of light and shade, and realistic texture, often highly colored. Their main influences were Japanese print, French Realism, as well as artists Bastien-Lepage and James Whistler.

Popular Artists: Joseph Crawhall, Sir James Guthrie, George Henry, EA Hornel, Sir John Lavery

American Impressionism

American Impressionism is a style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that loosely followed the tenets of the French Impressionists of the 1860s and 1870s. After the Civil War, America enjoyed a period of economic prosperity, in which travel to Europe became common for those interested in the cosmopolitan experience. Young artists flocked to Paris and were introduced to an artistic community that did not exist in the United States.

Many attended the French art academies, especially the Academie Julian, and studied a traditional art curriculum. Others rejected the meticulous techniques taught at the academies and were drawn to Impressionism. They were attracted to the idea of painting outdoors, of using a lighter color palette, and to a loose brushwork technique.

There is great stylistic variety within Impressionism, but close examination reveals subtle differences between American Impressionism and French Impressionism. The Americans tended to maintain more solidity in forms, and their compositions do not dissolve into a flurry of brushstrokes but keep a sense of time and place. This style continued well into the 20th century, and remains a popular tradition of painting today.

Popular Artists: Theodore Robinson, Lila Cabot Perry, Theodore Butler, Mary Cassatt, Edmund Charles Tarbell, Wilson Irvine

Lot 2, Woman at her Vanity with Earring by Richard Edward Miller, 1910-1914, Keno Auctions (January 31, 2016)

Die Brucke

Rising at the beginning stages of the German Expressionist movement, Die Brucke (“The Bridge”) was founded in 1905 by four architecture students at the Technical University of Dresden; Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Tired of academic artistic practices, the group chose not to receive formal artistic training and instead lived and worked off each other, holding collective exhibitions to publicize their art and message.

They sought to paint using the purest form of expression, doing away with perspective and proportion for bold, loud colors and exaggerated forms. Their style of painting was impulsive, reflecting an immediacy and spontaneity to their work. Die Brucke artists were influenced by the art of Van Gogh and Gaughin, as well as the Neo-Impressionist, Art Nouveau, and Fauvist movements. They studied African and Polynesian art at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology, the inspiration for many figures in their work.

The artists of Die Brucke eventually splintered off into their own individual styles, dissolving in 1913 due to artistic differences. However, the group remains well known as an early progressive movement that sought to break free of the academic mold and hence made a lasting impact on 20th-century art.

Popular Artists: Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Mueller


As the first avant-garde 20th-century art movement, Fauvism broke from artistic traditions of the past. The movement’s emphasis on formal values and expressive use of color, line, and brushwork helped liberate painting from the representational expectations that had dominated Western art since the Renaissance. Although the style began before 1900 and continued beyond 1910, the movement itself lasted only three years, c. 1905-1908, and exhibited three shows.

Referred to as Les Fauves (The Wild Beasts), the Fauvist gained their name at the Salon D’Automne in 1905 after critic Louis Vauxcelles described their show of work with the phrase “Donatello au milieu des fauves!” (“Donatello among the wild beasts”). Fauvist paintings are marked by wild brushstrokes, expressive brushwork, flat composition, and a bold sense of surface design.

Fauvism was influential on near-contemporary styles and a succession of avant-garde movements in 20th-century art including Expressionism, Orphism, Abstract Art, and in particular, on the German Expressionist groups Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter.

Popular Artists: Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Georges Rouault, Albert Marquet, Louis Valtat

Pop Art

Pop art refers to an international visual art movement and style that originated in England in the 1950s. In the 1960s, it made its way to the United States where it reached the full expression of its unique aesthetic. In a 1948 issue of Architectural Digest, English critic, Lawrence Alloway first applied the label “pop art,” using the term to describe a new genre of paintings that “celebrate Post-War Consumerism, defy the psychology of Abstract Expressionism and worship the god of materialism.”

Pop art features images drawn from popular culture – particularly mass marketed and widely recognizable images such as advertisements, comic books, celebrity images, and supermarket products. It is often interpreted as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, the dominant movement at the time.

Pop artists worked in a variety of media including painting, sculpture, printmaking, collage, and installation. Formal characteristics of the genre typically include anonymity of surface, strong, flatly applied colors, and centralized compositions. Pop Art is considered to be one of the last modern art movements and thus the precursor to Postmodernism, though some critics and art historians regard it as one of the earliest examples of Postmodern art.

Popular Artists: Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns

Postmodern Art

Postmodern art describes art forms that both arise from and react against trends in Modernism. These art forms include: intermedia, installation art, conceptual art, performance art, and multimedia.

Postmodern, a term created to describe various categories of contemporary art beginning in 1970, aims to ignore genre boundaries. It encourages the mix of ideas, media, and forms to promote parody, humor, and irony. The use of industrial materials, pop-culture imagery, bricolage, collage, and text are often employed to achieve this expression. Intermedia and performance art especially disband genre labels by combining disciplinary activities such as theater and painting, poetry, and drawing.

The genre also champions the value of individual and personal interpretations; reality only comes into being through interpretations of what the world means to the individual. Postmodern artists turn away from many aspects of Modernism including formal purity, medium specificity, art for art’s sake, authenticity, universality, originality, and revolutionary or reactionary tendency.

Popular Artists: Laurie Anderson, Judy Chicago, Erro, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman

Lot 3, Reclining Woman on Red by Elvira Bach, 2006, Auctionata AG, April 2014

Young British Artists (YBA)

Young British Art (YBA), or Britart, was founded in the 1980s by a group of neo-conceptual artists led by Damien Hirst. The youthful, entrepreneurial talent of YBA developed at London’s Goldsmith College under the guidance of conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin and Richard Wentworth, among others. Fueled by the shock-value of the spectacle, Britart lacks the traditional separation between media and art.

YBA recalls the influences of Marcel Duchamp with its emphasis on the found object, along with witty and unconventional representations of everyday life, and Joseph Beuys’ contemplation of the artist’s place in society. The genre encompasses a wide range of media including video, photography, painting, collage, sculpture and installation art, but does not feature a unified set of techniques. The 1988 exhibition “Freeze,” curated and promoted by Hirst, pinpoints the official origin of the YBA group.

Popular Artists: Tracy Emin, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Angus Fairhurst, Damien Hirst, Ron Mueck

Contemporary Aboriginal Art

Over the last century, many indigenous people of Australia have created western-style canvas paintings or works on paper based on traditional aboriginal motifs. These motifs generally derive from Tjukurpa, loosely translated as “Dreamtime” or “The Dreaming.” Dreamtime stories are creation myths featuring ancestral spirits specific to each of the numerous aboriginal tribes.

The beginnings of the Contemporary Aboriginal art movement can be traced back to 1971 in Papunya, a community created by displaced aboriginal tribes-people in northwestern Australia. Papunya soon developed into a thriving artists’ collective called Papunya Tula. They became renowned for their “dot paintings” and provided the inspiration for the development of many other such communities across Australia.

Aboriginal works are graphic and symbolic, made up of lines and dots. Because of their religious origins, there is a prescribed format, specific meanings, and strict protocol in place for their creation, though today artists adhere to these guidelines to varying degrees. In order to emulate the look of traditional mineral pigments, many artists use a limited palette made up of black, white, red and shades of brown. Others embrace new pigment technology and employ bright, vibrant, synthetic colors.

Popular Artists: Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Charlie Tarawa Tjungurrayi, Old Mick Tjakamarra, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Boxer Milner Tjampitjin

Contemporary Chinese Art

Chinese contemporary art is one of the fastest growing areas in today’s art market and a relative newcomer to the international contemporary art scene. The first China pavilion at the Venice Biennale was in 1995, one hundred years after the Biennale began. The political environment under Chairman Mao kept a tight reign on artistic expression, making it difficult if not impossible for artists not painting in the academy-approved realist, pro-Communist style to gain exposure.

Regulations were loosened after Mao’s death in 1974, and Chinese artists began to create contemporary works that give insight into China both past and present. Cynical Realism became one of the most important movements in Chinese contemporary art. It used the realist style of communist political art to convey the stifling extremism of the Cultural Revolution.

While much of Chinese contemporary art is tied to realism, many artists have used abstraction to great affect. For example, Cai Guo-qiang uses gunpowder and large-scale explosions to express a spontaneity and lack of control so opposite to the policies of his government. Yang Shaobin’s famous series of miners uses expressionistic brushwork to depict the brutality of their labor conditions.

Popular Artists: Weiwei Ai, Guo-Qiang Cai, Xiaochun Miao, Zhang Huan, Yin Jun

Contemporary Japanese Art

Japanese contemporary art provides a unique look at Japanese culture today. While some Japanese artists choose to work in a western style, much of contemporary art in Japan draws on traditional Japanese art, called Nihonga. It also draws on contemporary Japanese culture, particularly the art style and subject matter of Japanese animation called anime, and the geek-culture that surrounds it known as Otaku.

Takashi Murakami leads the field with his bright, stylized paintings and sculptures that play off the overbearing cuteness seen in anime, called “kawaii” in Japanese. By drawing attention to the youth and cuteness seen in many aspects of Japanese society, artists touch upon what scholar Eiji Otsuka saw as the “infantilization” of Japanese culture in conjunction with the rise of the Japanese economy starting in the 1970s. After the end of World War II, Japan began rapidly adopting all things western, and as Japan’s economy expanded, much of Japanese culture started to veer toward the non-threatening and infantile.

In their appropriation of this kawaii culture, contemporary artists play with this connection between Japanese economic growth and its obsession with youth and innocence. As Japan continues to evolve at a rapid pace, contemporary artists use elements of both traditional and modern Japanese culture to reflect complex societal changes.

Popular Artists: Aya Takano, Ciho Aoshima, Yoshitomo Nara, Makoto Aida, Hisashi Tenmyouya

Lot 179, “On Earth, Year 2036” by Aya Takano, 2005, Artcurial, May 2014

Contemporary & Modern Southeast Asian Art

Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art, long a relatively dormant field in the international art market, has begun to receive significant international attention. Indonesia leads the Southeast Asian art market, boasting the most diverse array of talented contemporary artists of all countries in the region. Artists like Hendra Gunawan, Kusuma Affandi, Lee Man Fong, and Srihadi Sudarsono were early visionaries in modern Indonesian art, creating expressionistic works in the western tradition based on Indonesian subjects.

Vietnam boasts several popular modernist painters, including Le Pho, Vu Cao Dam, and Mai Trung Thu. All three artists are known for their understated figurative works depicting rural Vietnamese life and people on both silk and canvas and fetch high prices at auction. The market for Vietnamese contemporary art has been slower than that for Vietnamese modern art, mostly due to a lack of the necessary infrastructure including art schools.

In the Philippines, modern artists like Fernando Zobel and Romulo Olazo painted abstract expressionist works and became influential figures in the Southeast Asian art community. Contemporary artists growing up in the aftermath of Martial Law have avoided the abstract style of their predecessors and have engaged in the complex ideologies that plague a country recovering from extremism and violence.

Popular Artists: Benedicto Cabrera (BENCAB), Bunga Jeruk, Vicente Silva Manansala, Le Pho, Yunizar

Contemporary Middle Eastern Art

The Middle East has a remarkably vibrant contemporary art scene. Young artists in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and many other nations of the region are featured in major international museums such as the British Museum, promoted by international dealers such as Charles Saatchi and sold in special sales dedicated to contemporary art of the Middle East at major auctions houses around the globe.

Contemporary artists have taken Arabic script and adapted it into their artworks. For centuries, calligraphy was considered a sacred art – a way of revealing the Divine language, respected for its aesthetic qualities. Artists like Ali Ormar Ermes of Lebanon transform dramatic single letters into symbols and beautiful abstract forms.

Artists have also been deeply influenced by the political and religious conflicts in the region. While some artists treat their subject matter obliquely, others produce works that are direct commentaries. Palestinian Lail Shawa’s works reflect political realities, the trauma of war and dispossession, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through depictions of children from refugee camps.

Discussions of gender identity are reflected in the artworks of Ramin Haerizadeh. His series of manipulated photographs of two-semi naked men, “Men of Allah,” transgressed the gender boundaries and incurred a strong reaction from fundamentalists of the region.

Popular Artists: Shirin Neshat, Farhad Moshiri, Sadegh Tirafkan, Rokni Haerizadeh, Shirin Aliabadi

Contemporary African Art

Traditional African art has previously consisted of ceremonial masks, statues, and mud-cloth textiles. However, today, it has evolved into much more and is a movement that is exhibited and talked about around the world. The genre can be divided into the main geographic areas of Africa: North, Sub-Saharan, and South.

From 1948 to 1994, art in South Africa consisted primarily of Resistance Art, which pertains specifically to the political, economic, and social consequences of apartheid. In the mid-90s, artists began to explore the possibilities of social transformation and the effects of a new authority in everyday life.

North African contemporary art frequently deals with the spiritual customs of a religious group known as the Berbers, as well as other Arabic-influenced cultural groups. The Berbers rely heavily on symbolic elements which are meant to be protective of evil forces; the number “five” being one of the most common.

The Senegalese President, Leopold Senghor, championed the Contemporary Art movement in Sub-Saharan Africa by establishing the Ecole des Arts du Senegal. Artists began to portray traditional African values and culture in a groundbreaking manner. Sub-Saharan Africa is now considered an important center for contemporary art largely due to Dak’Art, the Dakar biennial that began in 1992.

Popular Artists: Kunle Adegborioye, El Dela Anatsui, Alexander Boghossian, Sokari Douglas Camp, Malangatana

Contemporary and Modern Indian Art

The foundations for the contemporary art movement in India were set in the late 1940s in Bombay, when artists Francis Newton Souza and Syed Haider Raza formed the Bombay Progressive Artists Group. Souza’s dominance in the international art scene was established when he moved to London in 1949, where his paintings of scenes of Indian life executed in an Expressionist style reminiscent of Art Brut garnered early support.

Raza was also popular internationally, and his series of works surrounding the concept of “bindu” as the center of creation remains one of the most important series of Indian works to date. The Bombay Progressive Artists Group would grow to include such artists as Maqbool Fida Husain, Tyeb Mehta, and Akbar Padamsee, who would all become imminent figures in the Indian Contemporary scene.

These early contemporaries would be followed by a younger generation of artists. An early figurehead for the newest generation of contemporary artists, Atul Dodiya, would be one of the first Indian artists to use western technique in a more self-aware, Post-Modern manner. He used the juxtaposition of Indian art traditions and western traditions to comment on the complex relationship that exists between the two cultures.

This younger generation of artists has since established a uniquely Indian aesthetic, which incorporates traditions of western art and previous generations of Indian artists.

Popular Artists: Justin Ponmany, Subodh Gupta, TV Santhosh, Atul Dodiya, Tyeb Mehta